Author Archive - Roger Pielke, Jr.

‘Heritage diplomacy’: Obama’s new tactic in Science Diplomacy?

June 8th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yasmin Khan from the Science Museum, London, follows up her previous guest post in light of Obama’s speech in Cairo on 4th July 2009.

In my last blog entry I alluded to the prospect of utilizing science diplomacy to help promote world peace. Following President Barack Obama’s ground-breaking speech in Cairo, it now seems that dormant rhetoric will soon be put into imminent action. Intentions to support scientific initiatives in the Islamic world as part of Obama’s vision for promoting peaceful relations between the United States and countries with a Muslim majority were revealed, as highlighted in David Bruggeman’s recent blog entry on Science Diplomacy and the Cairo Address.

It seemed too good to be true a couple of months ago when Dr. Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer for AAAS and Director for the Center for Science Diplomacy, foretold in his talk at Harvard how a new era of science diplomacy might be afoot. Turekian had defined science diplomacy as:

the use of international science cooperation with the goal of building or establishing relationships between and among societies.

Just prior to that, The Times reported that Dr Harold Varmus, Noble Laureate and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology has asserted that American diplomacy had previously undervalued the role of medicine and science in fostering friendly relations with developing nations. Varmus argued that US investment in fighting tropical infections and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes in poor countries would transform international perceptions of the US. Varmus also advocated the introduction of a “Global Science Corps” of scientists willing to spend at least a year working in a poor country, and a network of science attachés for every US embassy.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, no one was sure how much of what she promised would really transpire when she claimed that the new vanguard of foreign policy rests in the deployment of diplomacy as encapsulated in the phrase she helped to coin: ‘smart power’.

Smart power is a balance of hard military power with the soft power of diplomacy, development, cultural exchanges, education and science. One of the most promising of the smart power tools is science diplomacy, the practice of supporting and promoting scientific exchanges, cooperation and research between the United States and other nations, sometimes nations that have no other diplomatic relations with the United States.

Productive initiatives have already begun to materialise. A U.S. delegation was recently sent to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, where the implementation of science diplomacy has successfully proved to yield agreements to Seek Collaboration in Water, Energy, Agriculture and other Fields.

This refreshing approach demonstrated by Obama to “use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible” sounds encouraging and brings with it a fresh wave of world-wide hope. But what is most unique is Obama’s shrewd tactic to reference historical contributions made by other civilizations in order to give the present full context. This approach is both courageous and eye opening:

it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

Obama has now given a new edge to science diplomacy – combining it with a sort of ‘heritage diplomacy’, he knows he can take things much further. Since then, John Esposito amongst others has also observed that by focusing on our interdependence, shared values and common interests, Obama has generated a new mindset and paradigm for U.S.-Muslim World relations. In the mean time, administration officials are working to elucidate the fuzzy spots in Obama’s science diplomacy as summarised in a recent State Department factsheet ‘A NEW BEGINNING: THE U.S. AND MUSLIM COMMUNITIES AROUND THE WORLD’.

So what next? Obama’s speech was a watershed moment in history that raised expectations and has left us all in anticipation. We have yet to see his all pledges for action fully materialise but as Obama’s incisive words continue to reverberate, the future looks brighter.

Yasmin Khan is the Curator Team Manager at the Science Museum, London.

Worldwatch and Munich Re on Disaster Losses

June 4th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Kudos to Worldwatch and Munich Re who today issued a press release on the growing toll of disasters around the world, and they studiously avoid making any statements about attribution to greenhouse gas emissions:

To a large extent this [increase] is due to socioeconomic developments, such as increasing concentrations of valuable property and infrastructure, rising population, and the settlement and industrialization of exposed areas. Climate change and the increase in major weather-related natural disasters that is expected as a result need to be considered as essential drivers of economic losses in the future.

Welcome Max Boykoff

June 4th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

I am thrilled to announce that next month Max Boykoff will be joining the faculty of the University of Colorado and the staff here at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. Max is a leading scholar of various aspects of environmental governance, science and policy interactions, as well as political economics and the environment. He has experience working in North America, Central America and Europe.

Max has been at Oxford University for the past several years at its Environmental Change Institute. He will be a significant addition to our campus and Center. You can read some of Max’s work here. Welcome Max!

Stern vs. Chu

June 4th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Obama Administration is uncharacteristically speaking with two voices on international climate policy.

Here is Todd Stern, special envoy on climate change for the State Department:

No deal will be possible if we don’t find a way forward with China

Here is Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy:

President Obama has made it clear that the US should act first. Using China as a reason not to act is no longer an option.

Predictably, Republicans have seized upon the apparent inconsistency. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-PA) fired off a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting the following:

Please clarify for the record that the State Department still leads the Administration’s international efforts on climate change. Please also clarify the position of the United States in the U.N. climate change negotiations that are to result in an agreed outcome in Copenhagen in December. Specifically, is the United States seeking “a strong new international agreement that will include significant commitments from all countries,” as articulated by Mr. Stern, or a “new global deal on climate change” without commitments by China and other developing countries, as articulated by Secretary Chu?

Please provide clarification of the Administration’s position on these critical matters by June 15, 2009.

I’m not sure what the odds are, but I’m taking Chu in a knockout.

H/T Environmental Capital

What is Wrong with Non-Empirical Science?

June 3rd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Over at Dot Earth Robert Bertollini of the World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that the discussion about the Global Humanitarian Forum’s report has missed what matters most:

It is also a bit misleading that the ensuing debate over the GHF report has been portrayed as an argument over disaster statistics. In fact 95% of their headline figure is estimated to be from gradual effects on existing endemic health problems – malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition. Arguments over attribution of disaster impacts clearly miss the main point.

I focused my critique on the disaster impacts because it seems common wisdom that the attribution of malaria, diarrhea and malnutrition deaths to greenhouse gas emissions needs no further critique. I was wrong about the common wisdom.

The attribution of health impacts to greenhouse gas emissions relies on work done by the WHO. Here is how the WHO describes its own analyses:

In 2002 the WHO explained (at p. 26 in this PDF):

Climate exhibits natural variability, and its effects on health are mediated by many other determinants. There are currently insufficient high-quality, long-term data on climate-sensitive diseases to provide a direct measurement of the health impact of anthropogenic climate change, particularly in the most vulnerable populations. Quantitative modelling is therefore the only practical route for estimating the health impacts of climate change.

And by quantitative modeling, they mean a model with assumptions included for the effects of GHG-driven climate change. To be clear, these assumptions are not based on observations or measurements. What they are based on I do not know, but we do know that it is not the actual data record of deaths and their correlates. As WHO admits, the magnitude of the effects is not determined directly or empirically.

In 2003 McMichael et al. published a chapter for WHO surveying this topic in which they admitted that they were engaged in what might be generously called speculative work (here in PDF):

Empirical observation of the health consequences of long-term climate change, followed by formulation, testing and then modification of hypotheses would therefore require long timeseries (probably several decades) of careful monitoring. While this process may accord with the canons of empirical science, it would not provide the timely information needed to inform current policy decisions on GHG emission abatement, so as to offset possible health consequences in the future.

In other words, the policy process needs numbers and cannot afford to follow the “canons of empirical science.” So full speed ahead.

The 2002 WHO report concluded that:

[GHG-driven] Climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, 6% of malaria in some middle income countries and 7% of dengue fever in some industrialized countries.

For the exact same diseases the GHF report issued last week assumes that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the following proportions of deaths (in 2010, from p. 90):

Diarrhea 4-5%
Malaria 4%
Dengue fever 4-5%

[UPDATE: In the comments, eagle-eyed Mark Bahner observes that the absolute numbers of deaths in the GHF report are exactly twice the number from the 2003 WHO report. Why? Mark hypothesizes that the GHF applied the Munich Re disaster "adjustment" to the health effects losses. If so, then wow. But when you are non-empirical, I guess you can do that sort of thing.]

Should we conclude that the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on malaria deaths has decreased by 33% from 2000 to 2010 (from 6% to 4%, and apparently has spread from some middle income countries)? Or that the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on diarrhea deaths have increased by more than 100% in only 10 years?

More pointedly, how would anyone counter a claim from a critic who says that the actual number is zero? Or even that greenhouse gas emissions have led to a net reduction in deaths?

The answer is that you can’t counter these claims because there is no data on which to adjudicate them. We can rely on hunches, feelings, divine inspiration, goat entrails, or whatever, but you cannot appeal to the actual data record to differentiate these claims. So when people argue about them they are instead arguing about feelings and wishes, which does not make for a good basis for science.

And that is the problem with non-empirical science. It is not science. It might charitably be called educated guesswork or less charitably by a few other terms.

So is it possible that greenhouse gas emissions have already led to an increase in deaths? Sure. It is also possible that greenhouse gas emissions have led to a decrease in deaths or no effect at all.

How will we know the difference? For that we’ll need some empirical science.

Angels, demons and science diplomacy

June 3rd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In this guest post Yasmin Khan from the Science Museum, London, explores some of the emerging themes that were recently discussed amongst key players from across the globe gathered in London.

I was intrigued when I heard that the Royal Society was about to tackle an unusual theme in association with the AAAS via a two day discussion meeting entitled ‘New frontiers in science diplomacy’. I went along to gauge if the programme could really live up to its promise: to establish how science diplomacy could be used to solve many of today’s international challenges.

Amongst the Royal Society’s strategic priorities stated in their 350th anniversary goals includes a brand new Science Policy Centre that will investigate the role of national science policy in influencing innovation, emerging technologies and policy proposals relating to Climate Change, Energy, Environment, and International Security.

A particularly eye opening session examined ‘New Partnerships with the Islamic World’. Ehsan Masood, Chief Commissioning Editor for Nature Journal, pondered whether Science diplomacy could potentially play a critical role in maintaining world peace? A recent case in point was described by Naser Faruqui (Director of Innovation Policy and Science at the International Development Research Centre) who highlighted the successful Israel-Palestinian collaboration involved in a Mountain Aquifer Study his organisation had spearheaded. Faruqui considered the relationship between trust and power as part of diplomacy; to build and sustain mutual trust would require a movement away from a dependency where there was a state of power imbalance toward an interdependent relationship where both parties would be equal and thereby more trusting. The bottom line being that science diplomacy could be strategically utilised to positively influence foreign policy in addition to promoting international collaboration that helps to advance science.

A mammoth project that is attentively fostering international cooperation through regional collaboration was highlighted by Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, President of the Council of SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and its Applications in the Middle East). SESAME is a major science facility under construction in Jordan under the auspices of UNESCO in collaboration with Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan and Turkey. SESAME will enable world class science and technology in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region in subjects ranging from biology and medical sciences through materials science and physics to archaeology. SESAME has been modelled on CERN (the European laboratory for Particle Physics) which played a key role on building bridges after the second world war and during the cold war. There was a comedy moment when an audience member probed the speakers on their reaction to the villainous portrayal of CERN in the recent Hollywood film, based on Dan Brown’s book ‘Angels and Demons’. In the film, antimatter was stolen from CERN to destroy the Vatican using an antimatter bomb. “What if anti-matter is able to be manufactured in the Middle East?” teased the same audience member provokingly. The rest of the audience chuckled at this prospect. Of course, an antimatter bomb is total fiction, whereas the fruitful prospects for cutting edge research and discovery that SESAME will deliver is now a reality so long as science diplomacy angels continue to flex their wings to exorcise the demons that get in the way.

The event was successful in bringing together top experts to examine the role of science as a source of soft power in foreign policy and provided a rare forum for reflection and mutual dialogue. However, one couldn’t help noticing that many speakers did not seem to register the importance of promoting an accompanying campaign to inform the lay public about existing science diplomacy initiatives. There will be more missed PR opportunities at grass roots level if equivalent effort isn’t made to communicate the burgeoning progress in international collaborative science endeavours. It may be rather self-limiting if those involved in science diplomacy activities are the only people who know about.

It sounds obvious – it is good to talk – but not just to the converted.

Yasmin Khan is the Curator Team Manager at the Science Museum, London.

Climate Change Equals Thermonuclear War

June 2nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A group of Nobel laureates met in London last week at the St. James Symposium on Sustainability and crafted yet-another-political-statement-from-scientists. The statement (here in PDF) shows how hard it is to rise above the noise on the climate issue. Kofi Annan and his 315,000 deaths? That’s nothing. Look at what the Nobelists came up with:

The solutions to the extraordinary environmental, economic and human crises of this century will not be found in the political arena alone. Stimulated by the manifesto of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, the first Pugwash gathering of 1957 united scientists of all political persuasions to discuss the threat posed to civilization by the advent of thermonuclear weapons. Global climate change represents a threat of similar proportions, and should be addressed in a similar manner.

We are seeing an auctioning of promised devastation in an effort to corral attention on this climate issue. However, rather than motivate action via alarm, comparisons of climate change to thermonuclear war are probably going to lead to rolled eyes and a few laughs. Richard Cable at the BBC explains:

The qualitative difference between the two threats is perhaps nowhere better expressed, however inadvertently, than by the convener of the symposium himself, Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. Where once we had ‘the Cold War notion of mutually-assured destruction,’ he told the Times, ‘Today we have mutually-assured increases in greenhouse gases.’

OK. But while debates around climate change are still qualified by the words ‘might’, ‘could’ and ‘predicted’, it’s probably fair to say that the average person in the street may view the comparison of carbon emissions with things that can vapourise a major city in seconds as unhelpfully alarmist and perhaps just a little bit silly.

Secretary Chu Supports Exploitation of Canadian Tar Sands

June 2nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yet another indication that our future will continue to be fossil fueled:

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Monday he believes technology can solve environmental problems associated with Canada’s oil sands and that the huge nearby resource contributes to U.S. energy security.

Chu told the Reuters Global Energy Summit that the balance between the environmental impact from the huge energy resource in northern Alberta and its importance to U.S. energy supply is a complicated one that will require solutions from the industry.

Environmental groups have mounted major campaigns to get the message out to Americans that the expansion of Canada’s oil sands industry threatens to intensify global warming, deforestation and damage to water resources.

“It’s a complicated issue, because certainly Canada is a close and trusted neighbor and the oil from Canada has all sorts of good things. But there is this environmental concern, so I think we’re going to have to work our way through that,” he said. “But I’m a big believer in technology.”

Portents of Cap and Trade Doom?

June 2nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Do dust-ups in the blogosphere offer any insight to the fate of real-world policies? On cap and trade, I think the answer is “yes.” Specifically, the travails of Waxman-Markey (W-M) cheerleader number 1 – Joe Romm – provides some insights as to how difficult a pill W-M has come to be for the progressive community.

In his latest public display of conflicted views on W-M Romm flip-flops again once again. In the process he ties himself in a funny-looking knot while giving me a cute new nickname, which I like much better than (“delayer 1000-eq”).

His contortions have not gone unnoticed, e.g., by the FT Energy Source which sees Joe being called out by his “friends” as a sign of dissension within the environmental blogosphere.

Keith Kloor has some fun with Joe’s flip-flops and calls him out for going “all in” on W-M:

Upset that some critics have accused him of “cheerleading” the WM bill, Romm is now flailing away, lashing out in typical, unseemly asides at all his usual bogeymen. More bizarrely, Romm is trying to convince his readers (and himself?) that he’s always been upfront about how foul-smelling the WM bill really is. Well, for those who care to follow it, here’s the paper trail:

May 12: “How I learned to stop worrying and love Waxman-Markey, part 2: In praise of domestic offsets.”

May 17: “…what it actually does is enact into law a sweeping clean energy revolution that puts the nation on a path to virtually eliminate global warming pollution from the entire economy in four decades.”

May 21: “House committee approves landmark (bipartisan!) clean energy and climate bill…”

June 1: “No, I’m not a cheerleader for this weak, cheerless bill.”

On a related note, it’s fascinating to watch Romm dig a hole for himself with comments like this, also from his recent tangential post:

To be clear, my perspective is that the chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change if Waxman-Markey dies is zero…

Now Romm has previously admitted that the odds are against this bill getting through the House and Senate. So what happens if the WM bill does die?

Is that it? Game over? Romm closes shop, and we wait for doomsday? There’s really no getting around zero. But if this bill goes down, you can bet that Romm will climb out of that hole he built and pretend like nobody saw it happen.

Meantime, back in the real world Congress is considering whether or not to bring Waxman-Markey to the floor for a full House debate before July 4. The hand wringing in the blogosphere coupled with the fact that some environmental groups have already removed their support for the bill suggests to me that the bill’s support among the progressive community rests upon a very unstable foundation.

Now it may very well be that the support of progressives, much less environmentalists, is no longer of much importance to the passage of Waxman-Markey. After all the bill has been designed to build as broad a constituency as possible by doing nothing much effectively other than moving money around and creating various mechanisms for any pain imposed by the bill to be avoided.

On the other hand, if leading champions of the bill in the environmental community (e.g., NRDC, EDF, etc.) come to decide that the bill has become weakened beyond salvaging or is otherwise no longer worthy of their support, it is possible that the whole process could come tumbling down and the bill gets pulled.

In short, the fate of W-M in the current Congress is highly uncertain with a wide range of outcomes possible. I’d still bet that the House passes something this year, but the odds of the environmental and broader progressive communities liking what results are trending down quickly.

A Detailed Meteorological Analysis of Air France 447

June 2nd, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Tim Vasquez has posted up a detailed meteorological analysis of the weather conditions associated with the loss of Air France 447 over the Atlantic (h/t SO). He concludes:

Overall it does appear weather was a factor. In the main MCS [mesoscale convective system] alone, the A330 would have been flying through significant turbulence and thunderstorm activity for about 75 miles (125 km), lasting about 12 minutes of flight time. Of course anything so far is speculation until more evidence comes in, and for all we know the cause of the downing could have been anything from turbulence to coincidental problems like a cargo fire.

The complete lack of a radio call, though, and the clear evidence that the plane’s route crossed through an active complex of thunderstorms does make it likely in my view that structural failure from turbulence occurred.